Elkader woman Celebrates 100 years

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     1919 was a very good year.

      The Treaty of Versailles was signed, bringing World War I to an end. Congress passed the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. Babe Ruth was traded to the New York Yankees for $125,000, the largest sum ever paid for a player at that time.

      And just as importantly but a lot closer to home, Marjorie “Marge” Witt was born in Elkader to William and Virginia Witt, descendants of one of the town’s pioneering families.

     Last Saturday, Marge, who became Marge Costigan following her marriage to Clark Costigan in 1945, celebrated her 100th birthday. Her four children—Heidi, John, Colleen and Dan—threw a party in her honor. Dozens of other family members and friends attended.

     “I’m not sure what the fuss is about,” Marge said in an interview in her home a few days before the event. “I sort of expected to make it to 100. After I passed 95, it was pretty easy.”

     Despite her nonchalance, turning 100 makes Marge a member of an exclusive club: Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population celebrates the century mark, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

     “The secret of living to be 100? Probably peanut butter in the morning and beer at night,” said Marge with characteristic humor. “But seriously, I don’t know. I don’t think its genes. Sis lived to be 97 but one of my brothers died at age 52 and the other at 84. Longevity was more in Clark’s family than mine. I don’t really question it; I’m just glad to be here.”

     Marge can trace her Clayton County roots back to 1868, the year her Grandpa Witt arrived here. Except for the years she spent at the University of Iowa, where she earned a history education degree, a few years teaching in Iowa and Washington, and her year as a Navy WAVE, Marge has lived in the area her entire life.

     “My biggest claim to fame is from my years at the University of Iowa. Nile Kinnick was a classmate of mine,” said Marge, recalling the Iowa football legend and Heisman Trophy winner. “He was really likeable, and smart. One day he came into class and asked me, ‘What’s happening today.’ ‘A test,’ I told him. So there you go—I actually spoke two words to the great Nile Kinnick.”

     Marge has a treasure trove of stories about her family, her travels around the world with Clark and her time in the service (by the way, all four siblings in her family served in WWII). But Marge’s favorite topic is the history of Elkader. She’s compiled 10 fat notebooks filled with copies of old newspaper articles, photos, anecdotes and more. Name a street or side street in the downtown area—she’ll share the entire history of every building on the block. Her passion for history was a driving force behind establishing a local historical society and eventually opening the Carter House Museum.

      The Carter House holds a special place in Marge’s heart. She and Clark lived there for a bit in 1951 while their house in Elkader was being built.

     I don’t know how many times I said to Clark ‘I wish we had a historical society here,’” Marge said. “Well, there came a time when a friend from Wisconsin gave us some seed money. Clark took it and ran down to the ban. He asked Roy Ehrhardt to be the president. We got some other officers together and pretty soon we were in business.”

     Marge has been active in the historical society and Carter House ever since.

     The spry centenarian has seen many, many changes in her lifetime. When asked to name the most memorable, she answered without hesitation: Communication.

     “In 1919, we had trains. We had airplanes and cars,” she said. “And, of course, we had ways to communicate. But the rate at which that has all changed is mind-boggling. If you need to know something you just ask some gadget and you get an answer right away. If you need to share some news, you just send a message.”

     “And there have been so many social changes,” she continued. “Things are much more relaxed, and some of that’s good. But I do see things that bother me. You know, Tom Brokaw called us ‘the greatest generation’ and I think that’s true. We had high ideals and we weren’t afraid to sacrifice for them. Now it’s more about instant gratification—and that concerns me.”

     Marge’s love of history and travel are two of the greatest gifts she’s passed along to her children. But the one that tops the charts has nothing to do with looking at the past or visiting faraway destinations. Her greatest legacy is her straightforward, no-nonsense advice.

     “Mom is a sage and always has been,” said eldest son John. “Add 100 years of experience to that and you get true wisdom. A few years back, I was really wrapped up in some issues and she told me two things that really stuck: Nothing’s so bad it can’t get worse and this too shall pass.”

     “I tend to get right to the point,” Marge inserted.

     “Anyway,” John continued, “I shot back at her ‘Just be happy? That’s all you’ve got for me.’”

     “And I said it was,” Marge interrupted again.

     “Well, it kind of annoyed me that I had to get to that particular point before she shared those gems,” John continued, “but, as always, she was right. Nothing is gained by letting all of the crap in life get you down. Mom was right: Just be happy.”

     “Put that in your article—the ‘just be happy part’ but also the part about mom being right,” Marge said with a laugh. “That’s a great birthday present.”

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